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Why Don’t Anti-Drug Campaigns Highlight Violence?

By Taylor Marvin

I wrote the weekly puzzler post at Political Violence @ a Glancean academic blog primarily authored by political scientists. Today I asked why American anti-drug campaigns largely ignore the social costs of Americans’ demand for drugs in Latin America. In researching the question I looked at numerous contemporary  youth-focused anti-drug campaigns, and found few references to cartel violence as a reason not to purchase illegal drugs.

To be clear, I’m not saying that highlighting cartel violence in Mexico would convince many of the young people public anti-drug campaigns typically target to abstain, but it’s possible that campaigns focusing on the violent drug trade  — rather than the personal health and social problems that these campaigns typically highlight — would be effective. I think that today’s anti-drug campaigns are often ineffective because potential drug users are able to see the costs of illegal drug use they highlight as hypothetical: sure, drug use ruins other people’s lives, but it can’t happen to me. Highlighting the violence inherent to the international drug trade, while more remote, is also more real: if I buy illegal drugs my habit will directly lead to further violence.

One reason for this absence could be that the connection between American drug use and foreign trafficking-related violence is too remote to influence behavior, or that potential drug users are unlikely to see violence visited on others — and foreigners, at that — as reasons not to use illegal drugs. Similarly, an anti-drug campaign highlighting trafficking-related violence would be most effective if it was graphic, and public agencies could be hesitant to distribute disturbing images. But I am still surprised few anti-drug campaigners have tried this tactic. Any suggestions why?

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